Good writing is something that reaches out to grip the reader from the very first line of a book. In If You can Walk, You can Dance, author Marion Molteno, with great flair and sensitivity, follows the trail of Jennie de Villiers as she traipses across geographies in search of her inner music.
Jennie is a white girl growing up in South Africa. The youngest in a family of numerous brothers, Jennie’s growing up years are spent observing her siblings’ rowdy activities and dreaming away the days in the tumble down family garden; the watchful eyes of caring parents are never too far.
Across the road lies wilderness. Jennie’s idyllic life is suddenly cut short as she finds herself a fugitive on the run with her boyfriend Kevin Cartwright even as her friend Jonas Nkosane is arrested by the police for political activities. Fleeing from all that was familiar, Jennie finds herself transported to tiny hamlets in Swaziland where she is befriended by the hospitable locals.
In one of these, she discovers the timeless magic of African music. An old man gifts her an ambira, and the musical instrument becomes Jennie’s treasured possession in her days of nomadic living. When Kevin discovers that he is eligible for a passport and thereby, in a position to flee the country, Jennie agrees to a marriage of contract with him (whom she detests by now), and the duo head for London to live a life of freedom.
London is the antithesis of Swaziland with its crowds and rainy weather. Jennie, who has separated from Kevin on arriving, takes refuge in a community house, and with her approachable nature, makes instant friends with Paula and Jaswinder, who play pivotal roles in her life. The house is an extraordinary affair with a floating population—women residents of different nationalities drift in and out as per their convenience and their lovers (male and female) are often discovered sitting at the breakfast table.
Unqualified for any kind of specialised work, Jennie takes a job of a cleaner and then, a child minder; her experiments with music continue all the while.
Paula drags her to a music workshop, and it is here that she meets the organiser, a Scotsman named Neil, who reintroduces Jennie to her musical identity. When the workshop is done and Neil leaves, Jennie experiences her very first real heartbreak. But true love has a way of surviving, and Neil enters her life again only to confess that he carries with him the baggage of another relationship. Jennie’s love for Africa can never be quelled and she flits from Daar es Salaam to Nyika, Rumphi and Lusaka, seeking music, meaning and inner closure.
Other love interests beckon, but her heart beats only for Neil. There is a crisis back home; her father is dying and a brother has been found guilty of political intrigue. She needs to get back, and after years of being in exile, a shift in the political scenario enables Jennie to return home.
Molteno spins an exquisite love story against a backdrop of political unrest. She explores the music angle with passion, verve and a great deal of research.
The multi-cultural characters are well etched—the effervescent Paula and the homely Jaswinder with her penchant for Bollywood songs, leave their mark. Moltena excels in the understated, the simmering racial undercurrents are hinted at in an obtuse manner and there a gentle lilting quality to the book. If You Can Walk, You Can Dance is not merely about love, dance or music, it is about the triumph and celebration of the human spirit.